The presence of Baltic literatures in Spain

by Albert Lazaro Tinaut

THE PRESENCE OF BALTIC LITERATURES IN SPAIN

   From the coasts of the Mediterranean, the Baltic world appears to be as unknown, distant and exotic as the Fergana Valley, the mosques of Isfahan or the palaces of Jaipur. It is not only for cultural reasons; until only recently, the Baltic countries belonged to a closed and “hostile” empire which in the eyes of the citizens of the Latin world had an aspect of a grayish uniformity -  a Soviet uniformity abolishing all distinctions between the Estonians and the Uzbeks, the Moldavians and the Buryats.
   The fall of the formidable empire, however, has not been able to liberate mentalities from certain clichés, since the media, besides the problems of the great Russia and, for obvious reasons, the desperate fight of the Chechens, hardly mentions other “ex Soviet nationalities”. Thus it is not rare to read – even in intellectually shaped articles – such flagrant mistakes like “Riga, the capital of Estonia”, or “in the Soviet republic of Belorussia”, or “in the Russian city Kaunas”.  Scarcely three years ago, one of the main Spanish daily newspapers claimed in an article that the writer and diplomat Ángel Ganivet (one of the few Spaniards who has known in situ the Baltic world and has written in detail about it; at the end of the 19th century he was the Spanish consul in Helsinki and afterwards in Riga) died in the city of Helsingfors, having drowned in the river Duina (Daugava). Indeed, Ganivet drowned in Daugava, but not in Helsinki, but Riga!
    Despite the scarcity of knowledge, the press sometimes refers to the “Baltic Reality”, as if there was a single reality and these countries formed a political and cultural unity. Seldom a journalist or an intellectual who writes in the Spanish media knows this “reality”, because if so, he would know that an Estonian  belongs to a “reality” culturally and linguistically close to that of a Finn, and only geographically to that of a Latvian. He would know that a Lithuanian  is not a Russian and does not use Cyrillic while writing in his language. He would know that a Latvian and a Lithuanian have lots of things in common (more than a Lithuanian and an Estonian would), but what makes them different is basically their religion, or at least their cultural tradition with religion as its axis. He would also know that the problem of the Russian minority varies from one republic to another, and would not refer to this “discriminatory problem”, as if the Slavic minority was a homogeneous one in all three Baltic states. Above all he would know that Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are not Slavic people, as it is here where the roots of ignorance lie.
   Like any distant reality, the Baltic “realities” inspire a look for similarities and analogies with closer and better known areas, perhaps in an attempt to penetrate their mysteries.  In Catalonia, where we have accepted the fact of bilingualism rather peacefully (despite the efforts of some politicians to destabilize the situation assumed by the majority of the population), it would be difficult to understand that an Estonian or a Lithuanian, for instance, does not know or speak Russian well. Indeed, the similarities are more apparent than real: following the death of the dictator Franco, the generations that lived prior to the democratization process, knew better Spanish than their mother tongue in Catalonia – the latter language was banished by Franco’s regime in schools and all official establishments. It would be surprising to a Catalan that in the “terrible” Soviet Union (demonized to the utmost by the propaganda of the Franco regime and the Catholic Church) the Estonians, for instance, could use their own language at schools or while seeking a document from the Town Hall.
    Recently a nicely edited book about the post-Soviet Central Asian republics, written originally by Colin Thubron - The Lost Heart of Asia - appeared in Spanish. In the first chapter, Thubron provides an illuminating story. He flies in a “groaning Tupolev” over the desert of Turkmenistan towards Ashabad, by his side an Uzbek citizen takes a seat and, after a while, having exchanged some words with the author and noticing his difficulties with Russian, asks him: “Are you from the Baltic?” To be sure, a Spanish reader of the book would not understand what part of the Baltic the Uzbek had in mind…
   The above explains why it has been so difficult for Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian literature to reach Spanish bookstores. Except for a handful of intellectuals born in those regions and later assimilated in “greater” cultures, like Isaiah Berlin, Czesław Miłosz, Emmanuel Lévinas and even Romain Gary, the presence of the East Baltic writers in Spain is almost nonexistent.
   The first Baltic novel translated into Spanish (and Catalan) was The Eye of the Serpent, a Lithuanian author Saulius Tomas Kondrotas (edited respectively by the publishing house Seix Barral and Edicions Columna, of Barcelona, in 1992). The translation was made from the French translation of the book, edited a year earlier by the Parisian publishing house Albin Michel. The publication of the book (and more importantly that it appeared also in Catalan) has to do with the “Lithuanian model”, widely popular in Catalonia after Vytautas Landsbergis challenged Mikhail Gorbachev and became the exemplary leader in the fight of the “small” nationalities against big empires. Catalan nationalism felt at once proximity with the Lithuanian pattern. On the contrary, there was never such feelings towards the Latvians or the Estonians – no doubt because the latter was less radical and lacked the symbolic shade of the religious background which provided, to a certain extent, a link between the feelings of the Catalans and the  Lithuanians. It was probably the only moment when the “Baltic reality”, identified with the “Lithuanian reality”, filled many pages, and not only of daily newspapers.  A small Catalan publishing house of an unmistakably nationalist colouring, El Llamp, (now vanished) launched two significant books in those years: Els nacionalistes a la URSS. Els russos, i els altres, en l’era Gorbatxev, by Vicent Partal (1988) and Lituània dels inicis  a la tercera independència, by Jordi Bañeres and Marc Leprêtre (1990). Neither of them attributes importance to cultural fact but both pay a good deal of attention to the nationalist movement and its historical background.                                                
  Latvian literature remains, to date, unedited in Spain. Estonian literature, on the contrary, can boast to be most represented, even though it has been translated only into Spanish (and not into Catalan).
   There are four Estonian books accessible to the Spanish reader: El loco del zar (The Tzar’s Madman) and La partida del profesor Martens (The Departure of Professor Martens), both by Jaan Kross, published respectively in 1992 and 1995 by the important Anagrama publishing house of Barcelona, in the excellent renderings from the French by Joaquín Jordá (compared with the original Estonian texts by Jüri Talvet); La séptima primavera de la paz (The Seventh Spring of Peace), by Viivi Luik, also translated from a third language by R.M.Bassols and edited by another important publishing house of Barcelona, Seix Barral, in 1993; and finally Estado fronterizo (A Border State), by Emil Tode alias Tõnu Õnnepalu, rendered into Spanish by Ruth Lias and myself and published by Tusquets in Barcelona last year. This is the first Estonian novel translated into Spanish directly from Estonian. I am presently working together with Kadri Mets on the translation of Õnnepalu’s second novel, The Price. It should appear this year.
    To this brief selection of Estonian narrative one should add a mini-anthology of Jaan Kaplinski’s poems, Nada más que Algo más, that we translated hand by hand, Jüri Talvet and myself, during a summer month of 1997 in Tartu. (For this we owe thanks to the Eesti Kultuurkapital). The booklet with Kaplinski’s poems was published by Casa del Traductor (Translator’s House) of Tarazona, in 1998. One more Estonian book in Spanish deserves mention, although it has never reached Spanish bookstores – a selection of Estonian fairy tales, Cuentos tradicionales estonios, prepared by Jüri Talvet and rendered from Estonian, with much care and love, by the late Hella Aarelaid (who could never see her pioneer work published). Collaborating with a good friend, Esther Bartolomé,  we adapted and revised the texts in Spanish, and the book appeared finally in 1990, edited by the Tallinn publishing house Perioodika, with magnificent illustrations by Jaan Tammsaar.
   The reception of East Baltic literatures in Spain has thus had little transcendence. It is not only because these three republics are unknown, distant and exotic, as I tried to show at the beginning of my article. The same fate is shared  by all literary works written originally in minor languages, since they remain outside the big commercial circuit of international book editing. Likewise there is a notable absence from the Spanish book market of the major part of Oriental literatures (maybe with the sole exception of Japanese literature) and of East Mediterranean (Greek, Turkish, Arab) literature, as well as of East European literatures (save Russian, Czech and Polish literature, that to a certain extent have deserved more attention). One can easily guess that only a major international propaganda event, like the Nobel Prize, can hope to produce an upsurge of “minor” cultures and literatures and provoke the curiosity of the reading public. In other words, they should become “trendy”.
   On the other hand, one more factor should be taken into account. If the editorial world is inclined toward greater literatures, it is also because there are considerably more people capable of translating from these languages. It is easy to find a good and reliable translator, let’s say, for French or Italian, while apparently nobody in Spain has sufficient Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian language skills. Rendering from the “small” languages, therefore, involves considerably more risks. It is often an arduous,   slow and vocational task (almost a devotion!), by which the economic interest really does not come into account (translators’ honorary fees in Spain are modest, and even more so in the case of a co-translation). What can only inspire a translator is his unconditional love for the culture to which he offers his sacrifice. If translating is “lending to an author a language he does not know”, as one of our best translators of German literature, Miguel Sáenz, has modestly mentioned, in the case of minor languages, like Estonian, something more should be added. The non Indo-European origin of Estonian obliges the translator to break Latinized patterns and structures, to reconstruct ideas that are really impossible to translate. At times he has to mock the semantic of words, to convey expressions that have no equivalent and to transform situations that otherwise could not be understood in his own language area… He has to risk! And then the fright of an involuntary treason and a conceptual deformation is overcome, his task becomes a paradoxical  adventure with the final result being a triumph over the forces of impossibility.                  



Albert Lázaro Tinaut
Barcelona, December 1998
Albert Lázaro Tinaut is a Spanish-Catalan intellectual, working at a Catalan publishing house in Barcelona